Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

Property Rights and Wetlands
Speech to the New York Wetlands Forum
Syracuse, New York

Carol W. LaGrasse, President, Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc.
March 23, 1999

This short speech was delivered to the New York Wetlands Forum, an annual convention of government regulators and members of the green industry who derive their income from wetlands regulation. The speech was invited to raise a "debate" for the first time at the Wetlands Forum on the conflicts between government restrictions and private property owners. The professionals and bureaucrats in the audience apparently expected to hear a series of detailed arguments and proposals. The room became audibly silent, in stark attention, as this simple, clear call to respect private property rights was given.

When I was originally invited to speak for today, the topic for the panel was to be "Property Rights versus Public Need." The chairperson settled on a more appropriate title: "Property Rights and Wetlands." There should be no significant use of "versus" in consideration of property rights and wetlands policy or in consideration of property rights and the public "need" to protect wetlands.

The way to eliminate nearly all the current conflict over wetlands protection is to predicate all government action related to this aspect of public policy on respect for fundamental rights.

The rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are justly cited as the basic concepts on which our system of governance was established. The declarations of the right to freedom and to pursue happiness assert the belief in the fundamental right to enjoy the fruit of one's labors. Of course, in a material sense, the fruit of one's labors is very largely one's private property. Without the stability of private property ownership protected by the government, a society where the population lives in freedom and prosperity is not possible.

What has happened to arouse so much unnecessary and — for the private property owner — devastating conflict over wetlands protection is that the federal, state and even local government have used an unjust and inconsistent mixture of policies to achieve this perceived good. The government uses government purchase, government easements, government leases, government subsidy, education, regulation which varies from minor restrictions to prohibitions of all use, and enforced purchases of "mitigation" lands and wetlands constructions by the property owner.

Little conflict, and therefore little occasion for the use of the word "versus," would exist, and I would not have been invited to address this Wetlands Forum today about private property rights, if the government were not using regulation of private property, as well as coerced mitigations including purchase/donations to protect wetlands.

We came gradually to the stage of such coerced withdrawal of private property from the use of the owner without compensation. Of course, if you do not have the full use of something it is not fully yours. And, if you have to buy your land a second time to please government regulators as John Poszgai puts it angrily, refusing to give in even after serving in federal prison, someone must be telling you that the first time it wasn't yours, but theirs.

As the people who have seen me live my adult life have often observed, I am personally devoted to the idea of living in harmony with nature. But I'd never argue that someone's property should be stolen from him because of my personal convictions of its beauty or importance to the natural scheme of things.

Those of us who are of the viewpoint that a particular wetland is important to be preserved have two just options: We may work through the representative electoral process to tax and budget the funds to legitimately acquire the property (if the property owner is not inclined to voluntarily devote his land to the purpose we deem important) or we may offer to purchase the property ourselves. The latter is the more appropriate method in the viewpoint of those like myself who believe that government holds too much land already, but either method is just — in accord with a philosophy that respects freedom.

There is a great deal of appeal in the latter method of protecting wetlands: The purchasers would have the pleasure of exercising their convictions and improving their morality by consistent living, as well as being forced to evaluate the importance to themselves of such-and-such wetland, as they would be paying for it out of their own pockets, rather than exercising the tyranny of the majority to tax all for the values of possibly a select few.

Members of my family have found great pride, even though we are people of modest means, in exercising our prerogatives to purchase and preserve lands we found pleasing to ourselves.

In the event that you find my thinking obscure, I'd like to point out that when it comes to genuine nuisances which one party can impose on another, I advocate the power of government to exercise its fundamental role of protecting one citizen's property interest from the overreaching behavior of another. That is why we rely on the government to protect us from the air and water pollution that others might subject us to.

But when society wants to build a highway, it does not just bulldoze down Mrs. Brown's house and tell her to go out in the street and start over. No, government attempts to negotiate a fair price with which to purchase the property from her, and, failing that, government goes to court, exercises the ultimate right of eminent domain, and the two parties settle their dispute over valuation before a judge.

When the government would like to restrict any particular use of someone's property because of its wetland value, the government should acquire an easement for that value, much as in this document filed by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in Chautauqua County, which I brought as an example*, or purchase it in fee simple. The government would thereby justly compensate the owner for those rights forfeited or for the full value of the property. As a result, the property transfer, now so often executed unjustly by regulation, or theft, would be consummated in the course of recognizing the fundamental civil rights of the property owner.

Such a system of wetlands protection that returns to a governmental structure that recognizes the fundamental human rights of the property owner would eliminate the conflict that has characterized wetlands protection.

* The deed, between Daniel D. and Marilyn A. Schimek, grantors, and the United States of America (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Commodity Credit Corporation), grantee, recorded in Chataugua County, N.Y., Deed Book 02382, Page 0466, conveys for the price of $41,044.00 a 30-year Warrantee Easement Deed for wetlands protection to encumber 94.16 acres by prohibiting all farming, forestry, drainage and building.

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